So You're a Player.
Do You Need
The hottest thing in management is
the executive coach--part boss, part
consultant, part therapist. Who are
these people? And what are they doing
in your company?
Medium (3 to 7 pages)
Management; Corporations; Trend
Business & Investing; Management
(ISSN 0015-8259) Vol. 141 No. 4 page
144+ Features/Executive Coaches
The hottest thing
in management is the executive coach--part boss,
part consultant, part therapist. Who are these people?
And what are they doing in your company?
Since Mary Bradford
took over as sales manager of the New England region
of Met Life's resources division a year ago, her
sales office has acted more like a New Age institute
than an old-line insurance company. She has organized
retreats at which her sales associates could get
massages or do tai chi along with their business.
She has encouraged them to keep journals. Last fall
they had a combined business meeting and bicycling
trip at Bar Harbor, Me. And oh, yeah, by year-end
they had boosted their sales by nearly 60%.
her unorthodox approach and her uncommon results
to a secret weapon: her executive coach.
ago Bradford was another middle-management burnout
candidate: on the job early each morning, on the
phone each night until ten, giving far too little
time to her family. She was facing a stressful mid-career
move from Washington, D.C., back to Maine and a
big transition to a new job at Met Life. But a boss
let her in on his little secret: He had a personal
coach. She might want to get one too. A friend of
hers, who also had a coach, made the referral, and
Bradford began having weekly phone conversations
with Talane Miedaner, an executive coach in New
York City who has worked with people at Bear Stearns,
Citicorp, Motorola, Salomon Smith Barney, and Sears.
Bradford to reexamine her goals and values. She
helped her to reclaim control of her time. Often,
she helped her with the nitty-gritty of her job.
As is so common with salespeople, Bradford had a
habit of overpromising. Miedaner coached her to
underpromise and overdeliver--much more impressive.
Miedaner helped Bradford plot strategies for opening
doors with prospective clients, and rehearsed with
her when Bradford interviewed for a promotion. Bradford
began to believe that if something felt impossible
or outrageous, it was exactly the right thing to
her year of coaching "was like a grenade in my life
that's still going off." It taught her, she says,
that "people have to take more responsibility for
their own growth and development. They can't depend
on human resources. Coaches can help people come
to grips with huge changes in the way we do work,
in getting through big transitions."
Even so, she's
careful whom she tells about her coaching. "Some
people think it's therapy," she says. "They think
is one of the stranger wrinkles in management these
days--one of the hottest things in human resources,
except that it doesn't usually come out of human
resources. (In fact, HR is often the last to know.)
It is a grassroots movement that is spreading in
some of the unlikeliest corners of corporate America,
including IBM, AT&T, and Kodak. Some companies
don't want to talk about it (like Goldman Sachs,
which canceled an
interview for this story).
everywhere these days. Companies hire them to shore
up executives or, in some cases, to ship them out.
Division heads hire them as change agents. Workers
at all levels of the corporate ladder, fed up with
a lack of advice from inside the company, are taking
matters into their own hands and enlisting coaches
for guidance on how to improve their performance,
boost their profits, and make better decisions about
everything from personnel to strategy.
It's not that
executive coaching is particularly new. Chief executives
and those approaching the top have long sought counsel
from personal consultants, wise board members, or
industrial psychologists. But in the past five years
coaching has gone mass-market. In the age of Every
Man for Himself, every man can have a coach--and,
in an ever more commonly held view, needs one. The
four-year-old International Coach Federation says
its online coach-referral service gets 2,600 hits
a month. Its membership has increased eightfold
in the past two years, to 2,400 members, but the
federation guesses the total number of coaches is
more like 10,000. At Harvard Business School, Linda
Hill, professor of business administration, says
she's inundated with requests to coach. "Coaching
is becoming something of a heavy industry. It's
amazing," says Warren Bennis, professor of business
administration at the University of Southern California's
is a coach? Part personal consultant, part sounding
board, part manager. Yes, manager. Remember him?
That person whose job used to be to advise, motivate,
and train--but whose nose is now mostly stuck in
e-mail? For a surprising number of people, it is
now the coach--not the boss--who pushes them to
hire, to fire, to fine-tune a sales pitch, to stretch.
the phenomenon say that an executive coach often
functions as a therapist, too--though the coaches
themselves tend to deny this with some fury. Warren
Bennis believes that "a lot of executive coaching
is really an acceptable form of psychotherapy. It's
still tough to say, 'I'm going to see my therapist.'
It's okay to say, 'I'm getting counseling from my
If ever stressed-out
corporate America could use a little couch-time,
it's now. Trust in big companies is at an all-time
low. Baby-boomers have been burned; Gen Xers aren't
expecting the Corporation to take care of them.
Under the circumstances, employees are much likelier
to go outside and get independent advice to help
them be better managers, says Karen Cates, assistant
professor of organizational behavior at Northwestern's
Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Beyond that,
she says, mentoring systems have mostly failed.
Organizations are so lean that they don't have time
for it. You're paid for what you produce, not for
time you spend developing people. Bosses are managing
by e-mail. "Given the impersonal nature of business
today, we're likely to say, 'Go take that hill--and
oh, by the way, send me an e-mail when you get there,'
" says Charles F. Cleary, chief operating officer
On America, a telecommunications and Internet service
provider in Providence.
hardly be more trying for people all up and down
the corporate ladder. Woe to the boss who's too
authoritarian; he'll just cost the corporation good
talent. Woe to the manager who leans too heavily
on hierarchy; virtual teams call for flexible leaders
who can pull together strangers in distant parts
of the country and, for the duration of a project,
get them to bury their personal agendas and work
together. Meanwhile, the major currency of the manager--experience--has
never been so devalued. "You can't turn to your
nice gray-haired mentor and say, 'From your 30 years
of experience, how does one handle a dot-com?' "
says Barry Mabry, a partner at Ernst & Young
who is using a coach. "Nobody on earth has experienced
this kind of business environment."
driving the boom in coaching, says John Kotter,
professor of leadership at the Harvard Business
School, is this: "As we move from 30 miles an hour
to 70 to 120 to 180...as we go from driving straight
down the road to making right turns and left turns
to abandoning cars and getting on motorcycles...the
whole game changes, and a lot of people are trying
to keep up, learn how, not fall off."
its present form began in the 1980s, when some of
these trends were just beginning to take shape.
Thomas J. Leonard, a financial planner in Seattle,
was trying to help some yuppie clients figure out
what to do with their six-figure salaries and realized
that they needed more than just the traditional
tax and investment advice. He asked them if they
wanted to talk more broadly about life issues, "and
they jumped at it," he recalls. "They had no emotional
problems; they didn't need to see a therapist. They
wanted to brainstorm," he says.
up his financial planning practice and began full-time
"life planning" a couple of years later. At some
point, one of his clients suggested that he call
it coaching. By the late 1980s he was training others
to coach. "I had an inkling there was something
interesting and powerful about this idea," he says.
The need intensified through all the corporate downsizing
and restructuring in that period. "All of a sudden
you had all these people starting their own businesses
or consulting practices. They were people leaving
the corporate environment and they'd never had Entrepreneurialism
101," he recalls. They wanted to figure out how
to make more money, how to launch a great new concept
or project, how to reduce stress. Sometimes they
just wanted somebody to talk to. He began a formal
coach training program called Coach University in
1992, which put him ahead of the curve; soon there
followed managed care, which left a lot of therapists
anxiously seeking new ways to earn a living; and
then came the Internet, which, combined with globalization,
left a lot of managers looking for ways to cope
with breathtaking change.
But who, exactly,
can be a coach? That's the scary part: pretty much
anybody. Many of them are therapists. Many more
are dropouts from consulting. Many of the coaches
interviewed for this story were garden-variety professionals,
in past lives an Andersen consultant, a CPA, an
IBM salesman, a low-level bank executive, a marketing
vice president for Bloomingdale's. The federation
says that so far there's been no attempt to license
coaching. It has made an effort to establish standards,
but the boom in coaching worries even a lot of coaches,
who are concerned that rogues may give the profession
a bad name.
But right now
coaches are so hot that credentials are almost beside
the point. What seems to matter most is word of
mouth--did the coaching work miracles for somebody
you know? Corporate coaches are in such demand that
they can charge from $600 to $2,000 a month for
three or four 30- to 60-minute phone conversations.
Some charge as much as $400 an hour. So a lot of
them are earning far more than psychologists or
Of course, this
whole notion is still foreign to much of traditional
corporate America. "I have worked for organizations
that would find this quite threatening," says the
Kellogg School's Cates, who, like lots of other
business school professors, increasingly finds herself
called on to coach her consulting clients. Part
of the fear has to do with confidentiality. "As
a coach, I know a lot about the companies and the
people who live there," she says. Beyond that, "it
can be very frightening for an organization to have
its own employees talking to outsiders. They'll
want to know: Are the outsider's goals aligned?
What are you talking to that person about?" She
adds: "Ten years ago, you certainly wouldn't have
been allowed to do this."
It was pretty
threatening when Charles Cleary broached the idea
of using an outside coach as a change agent in his
region of AT&T's Growth Markets sales organization.
Rosemary Turner Slade Lucerne remembers it well.
Cleary was a vice president and general manager
in Growth Markets and new to AT&T; she was the
staffing and training manager and an 11-year veteran.
"My first reaction was to say, 'Chip, we don't do
that. It's not part of our training curriculum.
It's not on our intranet. We don't have the budget.
We can't,' " she recalls. But Cleary had spent the
better part of the prior decade at Teleport Communications
Group, a telecom maverick acquired by AT&T.
He'd come from a nimble, entrepreneurial culture
and knew that was what he needed to somehow graft
onto AT&T, to make his region a truly high-growth
sales unit. "If AT&T and I both spoke languages,
it was speaking French and I was speaking Spanish,"
he recalls. "I knew what I had to make happen at
AT&T. And I knew the road would not be smooth,"
he says. He enlisted the help of Cheryl Weir, an
executive coach who had spent 13 years in sales
In one of their
early conversations, Weir asked Cleary, "Where do
you want to end up at the end of the year?" He told
her "something pretty loosey-goosey" like that he
wanted to be No. 1. "Well, quantify that," she insisted.
When he told her 5% over his revenue target, she
replied, "Ahhh, you can do that in your sleep."
What would constitute hypergrowth? she wanted to
know. Fifteen percent? She nudged: Why don't you
aim for 20? (That's big, Cleary says, about double
the rate of his piece of the industry.) "She made
me put a stake in the ground," recalls Cleary. "This
team was not used to putting stakes in the ground."
Weir into the office for a couple of days of intensive
training with the staff. "We got into a room and
locked ourselves down," Cleary recalls. They talked
about their bad habits and what they were really
like at home with their families, and they confessed
their workplace failings--things like, "Well, I
don't spend any time with my people. Or, when they
come into my office, I say yeah, yeah, yeah, boom,"
says Cleary. At some point Cleary gave an impassioned
speech, and they all agreed on a sales target (the
consensus was to boost revenues by 16%, which would
be about double the prior year's growth rate) and
began to plot how they'd pull it off.
By year's end,
revenue growth was 16%. That put Cleary's outfit
in the top three fastest-growing in AT&T's Growth
Markets. "We blew out the numbers," he says. "Cheryl
accelerated our transformation, no question about
it." In January, Cleary was lured away by a job
as chief operating officer of Log On America. But
by that time, Lucerne had long since been won over.
The whole package cost $11,000 for two days of training
plus about $2,000 quarterly for follow-up coaching
with Weir, "and I honestly think we earned that
back in a week," says Lucerne. Weir is continuing
her work at AT&T with Cleary's group
and four others, and will be coaching at Log On
America as well.
to look at the spread of coaching is that it bridges
the growing chasm between what managers are being
asked to do and what they have been trained to do.
It is almost like the difference between generals
in peacetime and generals in war, says Harvard's
Kotter. "We have a lot of people who were trained
to be superb managers but now have horrendous leadership
challenges thrown at them. I think a lot of the
coaching is aimed at trying to help people develop
skills and actions that are different from what
they grew up with."
That has certainly
been the case at Kodak, which has experienced upheaval
in the past five years as it adjusts to new competition
and the Digital Age. Dan Carlson began working with
an outside coach last year to solve his part of
Kodak's horrendous challenge: cranking up productivity
with a work force that had all but melted down.
At the time he was a department manager in the color
film manufacturing operations of Kodak--"This is
the heart and soul of Kodak," he says--and he was
taking coaching to the factory floor. Here people
were used to top-down, command-and-control-style
management. Here there was an entitlement mentality.
"These are folks that are third-generation employees,
some of them. When they stepped inside Kodak, they
had an expectation of lifetime employment." But
restructuring had taken 18,000 jobs out of Kodak's
work force and had torn at corporate loyalties.
to work with coach Jan Austin last March on the
advice of an outside consulting firm. She met with
frontline supervisors and their group leaders. She
also conducted, among other things, a dozen two-day
clinics to teach managers how to motivate rather
than command, how to communicate with workers and
elicit their opinions. At one point the group spent
four hours discussing fear: was it a good motivator?
18-year Kodak veteran, realized that he sometimes
stinted on overtime even when it was truly needed.
"It's one of those metrics that sticks out like
a sore thumb," he says. He began to stand up and
say, "No, we need to make this investment, and here's
why." He began to shift his focus from managing
for results to investing time and attention in his
people. "It was a leap of faith," he acknowledges.
But it produced results. As employees became more
invested in their work, waste levels dropped significantly.
So did overtime. Productivity increased. He'd wanted
workers to "find their voice," to start speaking
up when they saw how to make things better. They
started taking more initiative both inside and outside
work. One factory worker confided to him that she'd
always wanted to sing a solo in her church choir
but had been afraid. Not only did she sing the solo
at church, but she also sang it for Carlson--right
there on the factory floor.
got a promotion. He is now manager of color film
sensitizing, a division of more than 1,000 employees,
and he has called on Austin to work with the larger
group until the end of this year. He wants to develop
coaching abilities in-house, and he has sent three
employees for coach training.
At many companies,
coaching has become the Band-Aid for a lot of the
dysfunction caused by the trial and error of doing
business in new ways. Matrixed organizations, 360-degree
performance reviews, virtual teams--they don't always
work as well in practice as in theory. At Ernst
& Young, Cynder Niemela has made a career for
herself as a coach who troubleshoots teams. Niemela
had collected an MBA, a degree in sports psychology,
and a decade of informal coaching experience before
Ernst snapped her up 2 1/2 years ago and made her
a change-management consultant. She'd worked with
virtual teams before--groups of clients, consultants,
and outsourced workers all pulled together around
a temporary project. Often, she says, "they're dysfunctional.
They don't align their goals with the corporation
or with each other...."
When she began
to work on a big hospital merger project at Ernst
two years ago, the 120 members were divided into
subteams, but each of those was off in its own orbit.
She assumed the role of head coach, teaching the
subteam leaders how to coach their teams and communicate
with one another. She devised a toolkit and a training
program to keep everybody on the same track. "Executives
now are so challenged," she says. "When you bring
a group together around a task, people become commodities
for the sake of the task. They get lost."
project was a success, and word of her work got
around. Since then she has been in hot demand. She's
currently coach for two big project teams, and she
is working to spread coaching around Ernst. She
counsels 15 partners, she conducts coaching workshops
for 18 of Ernst's human resources employees, and
she's launched an internal coaching network and
a rigorous certification program for those inside
the firm who'd like to become coaches. Rigorous
because "so many people are coaching, and they don't
have the experience or the skills," she says.
is the Wild West of HR. Until a year and a half
ago, the federation didn't have a credentialing
program. There is still not much consensus about
what kind of business experience or academic pedigree
qualifies someone to be a corporate coach. "I wonder
about the vulgarization of coaching," says Warren
Bennis at USC. "I'm concerned about unlicensed people
doing this." Angelo DeNisi, president of the Society
for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, says,
"If somebody comes in and doesn't know anything
about your job or your organization and they lay
out a plan for you, it's time to run."
At Ernst, Niemela
says, "I've met so many consultants who just call
themselves coach." She's also seen psychologists
who claim to be corporate coaches but don't know
what's meant by the Big Five. Even Marcia Reynolds,
president of the International Coach Federation,
expresses concern. "Surprisingly, we've had no major
ethical violations brought up to our membership,"
she says. "We do have to watch ourselves. There
are going to be unethical coaches."
is trying to impose discipline by requiring training
at places like Coach U, which was started by Leonard
and then sold two years ago to his protege Sandy
Vilas. (Vilas had been a speaker, a trainer, and
a stockbroker, and had worked in oil and gas, and
real estate, before becoming a coaching guru.) Coach
U is a virtual training firm that offers more than
50 teleclasses--that's right, courses conducted
via conference call. Its headquarters is Vilas'
summer home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. But plenty
of other coach training firms have sprung up that
aren't accredited by the coach federation; some
don't care to be. There are even new coaching associations.
And plenty of coaches with impressive academic pedigrees
and corporate track records don't have the slightest
inclination to go back and attend correspondence
classes at a place like Coach U, no matter how convenient.
And they are
convenient. As a student at Coach U, you can take
a class at your desk in the middle of the week.
Just clear your calendar for an hour, put on your
headset, and bring a case study from something you've
tried on your friends. Assignments are made by e-mail.
It is 1 P.M.
on a Tuesday in November, and Cheryl Weir is about
to conduct a class on that most basic of coach skills--Listening.
She is at the telephone in her office, which is
at home. She dials into the conference call first,
and several minutes later her pupils begin to assemble,
each one entering the virtual classroom with an
electronic beep that signals they're on the line.
Via e-mail, they've been given a couple of reading
assignments and asked to practice on ten people
since last week's class. Today one student describes
an executive client who "is like a hamster in a
wheel, running around and around, and just doesn't
know how to get off." This sends the class off into
a discussion of running on adrenaline and how this
interferes with their ability to listen to their
clients. Another student admits to being an adrenaline
junkie: "I am very results-oriented," she confesses.
"I am always in a hurry, always listening for the
bottom line: What do they want? How can I fix it?"
Periodically, Weir will ask, "How many agree with
that statement?" Those who do press a key on their
phone pad, which produces a beep, in a virtual show
This is all
just a prelude to actual coaching, much of which
takes place over the phone. Many coaches and their
clients have never met face to face. But it may
not be the face-time that matters most in managing
to get the best out of employees. One size doesn't
fit all, according to research by Cynthia McCauley,
vice president at the Center for Creative Leadership.
When it comes to management styles, some employees
need lots of feedback, others need lots of challenge.
Some need somebody to hold them accountable,
others need a sounding board. "It all depends on
your psychological makeup and what you're good at,"
Barry Mabry has found a coach to be a valuable sounding
board in today's crazy business climate. He'd received
a notice last year telling him that coaching would
be available to Ernst & Young partners. He made
a call and soon found himself on the phone with
"a strange woman." (It was Cynder Niemela.) "I was
in New Orleans; she was in San Francisco. She didn't
know much about my area of work," he recalls. But
within 20 minutes, he decided she could be both
trusted and helpful. Ever since, he has had routine
telephone conversations with her in which he has
discussed matters ranging from the mundane (how
to improve communications with subordinates) to
the cosmic (what do you want to get out of life?).
"Why do I need a coach?" he muses. "I've wrestled
with this." He's a corporate finance partner in
New Orleans. He has been with Ernst 27 years. He's
successful; he's happy. His recent performance review
was quite flattering. "Perhaps it's for the same
reason that Tiger Woods needs a coach or Pete Sampras
needs a coach," says Mabry. "Tiger Woods would say,
'I know how to play golf.' But his coach is probably
the most important person in his life."
phenomenon, like all mass movements, will have its
excesses: dubiously credentialed people hanging
out their shingles, no doubt; conflicting advice
and agendas, quite possibly, in offices where Everyman
has a coach. But corporate America had better heed
the phenomenon, even if it falls outside the traditional
corporate organizational chart. It's a reminder
that people won't run on autopilot or by remote
e-mail. No matter how much the world has changed,
people on the job still need some mentoring, some
monitoring, some meaningful interaction. And if
workers can't get that in-house, why, they're likely
to outsource it.
as an executive coach? At the moment, just about
anybody. "I wonder about the vulgarization of coaching,"
says Warren Bennis of USC's business school. "I'm
concerned about unlicensed people doing this."
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